Charles Dickens is a peculiar, and often difficult author to adapt. His tone ranges from childlike and optimistic (as in A Christmas Carol) to dark and Kafkaesque (as in A Tale of Two Cities) sometimes even in the same story (Oliver Twist). Any artist who even dreams of tackling the works of one of the UK’s greatest writers must first prepare themselves for the tonal balancing act lying on the horizon. Therefore, it is with both pride and admiration that I write that the Ensemble managed to not only successfully adapt Dickens’ Bleak House, but did so with finesse and honours.
The initial tone was set as the audience was led in to their seats: performers walked around, in costume, acting like members of the Victorian-era working class – complete with swearing, yelling and more shagging than an old carpet. The audience was made to feel like they had just entered the streets of London circa 1852, with both the humor and discomfort that entails. In this aspect, the dramaturgy was spot on in its efforts of immersion. Its one area of falter, which I feel the need to point out, came through the use of an intermission. This isn’t so much a criticism as much as it is an open question about immersion: why go to such lengths to immerse an audience when that immersion is going to be broken by an intermission? Granted, the play is long – and intermissions prove invaluable in long plays – and the pre-play made the experience richer than it could have been, but it is still a nagging issue in terms of directorial consistency.
However, such a minor nitpick doesn’t detract from the dramatic direction employed in the performance. There is a maxim in cinema –attributed to Stanley Kubrick – all directors are told to strive for: “Every frame a painting.” The meaning is self-evident. The Ensemble managed to achieve this perfectly via Bleak House’s use of scaffolding. Construction scaffolding dominates the stage, dividing it into nine boxes; three at the top, three at the bottom, and three below the bottom. This division allowed for fantastic framing and visual explorations of both class and moral divides. A sense of awe filled the room as actors scurried to and fro and up and down and side to side and out and in above and below from darkness to light. Proud and powerful characters would glare down from the top of the scaffolding while deprived and destitute characters would cower on their bellies below the bottom most planks whilst the lighting would frame them as if they had stepped out of a Victorian painting.
Little can be said about the acting, because little needs to be said. It’s superb. The cast managed to bring to life Dickensian machinations whilst simultaneously giving them a little bit of DGE flavor, as can be seen in the scene wherein three people represent the tenets of the Church (Faith, Hope and Charity), with Faith going on a racist diatribe about African children, Hope being sickly and complaining, and Charity masturbating maniacally. The actors’ subtleties and characterizations, much like the direction, walked the line between comedy and tragedy with flying colours, bringing to life this Dickensian-postmodern lovechild.
The Ensemble’s performance of Bleak House at Bath Spa University was, all in all, masterful in its execution of Dickens’ beloved morality tale. Through its brilliant direction and outstanding acting, Bleak House manages what few Dickens adaptations do: a faithful, yet unique, performance of the great writer’s work.
Photograph curtesy of Robert Golden.